Best of 2012

Here are the best books and other things I read in 2012. More book reviews are available on my 2012 list page.


  • The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
    This is a really important book about how police departments, political institutions, and public apathy are conspiring to maintain an underclass of African-American “criminals” as a system of racial control. I am often skeptical of claims like this and I was almost completely convinced. This is an issue on which most well-intentioned people are wrong. I think sometimes Alexander’s rhetoric is more inflammatory than it needs to be (the evidence is enough to make her case) but it’s in the service of a good argument. The other flaw is one of omission: there’s very little discussion of the 20th century’s black radical political movements and efforts at prison reform.
  • The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
    A beautiful, sad short novel about memory, love, shame, and getting older. I recommend you also read Colm Tóibín’s NYRB review of it.
  • The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility – The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer
    Wise essays about the concepts that led Brand and his collaborators to start the Long Now Foundation, which promotes slower thinking and cultural responsibility through strange projects like designing a huge clock that will last 10,000 years. Brand has a lot to say about the trajectory of technology and I think it’s valuable input, although I’m not going to start using 10,000-year notation (as in the year 02012).
  • The Shape of Design Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design
    Provocative and inspiring questions about what designers do and why—the shape of design as in the outline, not the details, of the trade. Given the power to affect the experiences strangers have with objects, services, and places, what should designers do with that power? I liked this very much but found the writing kind of elliptical, often hinting at specific meanings rather than spelling them out with examples.
  • Cadence & Slang Nick Disabato, Cadence & Slang
    A short but comprehensive guide to interaction design principles and practices. It’s got everything from data visualization to copywriting to stakeholder interview techniques, and I agree with pretty much all of the explanations and advice. This is an introductory user experience class in 100 pages—a must-read for designers and people who work with them.
  • Angels and Ages Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age
    Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day in 1809, which serves as the excuse for this short comparative biography written 200 years later. Gopnik does an expert job at telling each man’s story in just enough detail to make a case that the two of them changed intellectual history (science and politics) in similar ways, through their parallel development of a new “liberal voice.” This is a great book on its own, but it also made me want to go and read more by both Lincoln and Darwin. You don’t have to agree with Gopnik that they were both engaged somehow in the same project to appreciate his thoughts on their work.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
    In this career retrospective, Daniel Kahneman reviews the last few decades’ progress in cognitive psychology, explaining what we know now about decision-making, biases, and errors of judgment. A very well written and insightful book with broad applicability to everyday life.
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
    A perfect historical novel about a Dutch clerk in Japan in the early 19th century. It starts as a love story, then becomes a rescue adventure, and about halfway through I was unable to stop reading. Mitchell’s descriptive writing is as good as the story, which is to say, breathtaking.
  • Content Strategy for Mobile Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile
    This isn’t about mobile phones any more. Karen McGrane has written a book about making your content work on every device with internet access—Create Once, Publish Everywhere, as NPR says. Content Strategy for Mobile describes a strategy for gradually abstracting content away from presentation (there’s a parallel here to the web standards movement of the 2000s and the separation of markup and style) and suggests that you start by making a business case for mobile content. Anyone in charge of a content-based website should read this.
  • Design is a Job Mike Monteiro, Design is a Job
    A very helpful short book about standing up for yourself, saying “Fuck you, pay me” when it needs to be said, and protecting your design practice with a solid business framework: contracts, change orders, payment schedules, and so on. This is some of the best advice I’ve read recently. Wish it was longer.
  • Pale Fire Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
    Pale Fire is a novel formatted as a long annotated poem, with most of the action taking place inside a commentary to the poem. The late poet John Shade’s friend and editor, Charles Kinbote, may be an escaped king or an insane professor. If that sounds complicated and obscure, that’s because it is. But the book is a treat—even Shade’s poem without Kinbote’s commentary is well worth reading.
    One quibble: Nabokov seems to have stolen Kinbote’s unusual origin story from a turn-of-the century adventure novel, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, down to the royal lookalikes and the imaginary country starting with a Z. Zembla is pretty clearly Zenda. But that’s part of the book’s game, like mentioning “lolita” and professor Pnin.

Essays and Articles

I’ve also compiled these into a Readlist that you can send to your Kindle, iOS device, or other e-reader as one long document.